It's a month to the day since I last posted, mostly because I have been at home, where the internet is....sporadic at best. However, a few other things have been in the way of posting.
1. I have read pretty much every manga volume I own over again.
2. I have watched the entirety of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Yeah, all seven seasons. And yeah, I don't have a life, get over it.
3. I have been practicing my kendo a lot. My strikes are so much better now than they were a month ago.
4. I have done a lot of reading for university.
However, the thing that has taken up by far the biggest time, Final Fantasy XII, is what I want to talk about today. My initial suspicion was that I would call it a great game, but not as good as VII, and I think that's pretty much true.
First things first, the plot: Constant tension between the Archadian and Rozarrian Empires has led to annexation of many of the smaller kingdoms between them, including the Kingdom of Dalmasca, from where our hero, Vaan, hails. Two years before the start of the story, Dalmasca was invaded by Archades and put under military rule. The king was assassinated by the top general, Basch, and the princess Ashelia committed suicide. Thinking to get back at his oppressors, Vaan breaks into the palace on the night of a celebration welcoming the new consul from Archades in order to steal things. Here he meets not only the sky pirate Balthier and his companian, the Viera Fran, but also a member of the Dalmascan resistance calling herself Abelia.
This leads to a grand, epic quest, which I won't describe for fear of spoling the game for you.
The plot is, in my opinion, the weakest element of the game. It's fairly linear, and has few of the twists and turns that characterise other incarnations of the series. The bad guy is clear from the start, yet rarely shows up once the game has really got started. What this often leads to is the player having no clear sense of what they are doing or why they are doing it. It doesn't help that the characters, while fairly well fleshed out, have none of the style or memorability of characters from FFX or any of the others. The setting is also not as memorable as it could be. Spira from FFX was a vast, well-designed world with original and imaginative customs, religions, sports, groups. The world of FFXII, by contrast, seems shallow and underdeveloped. This is something that could easily have been rectified by making the game a couple of hours longer in order to showcase such things.
That's the extent of the bad, however, and even those problems really aren't as big as I have made the, seem. The thing that everyone knows about, the new battle system, really shines through as a positive. In my opinion, the best FF battle system so far is FFX's conditional turn-based one, but this one comes a very close second. They have stealthily hidden a turn-based battle system behind active-time feeling with a clever use of wait bars. This means that you watch the battle unfold in real time, while still being able to have turn-based control. The potential downside of this is that the player might feel overwhelmed by the whole thing, but that is mitigated by the clever gambit system, which allows you to set up what a character automatically does in any situation. For example, I could use gambits to make my white mage character cast Esuna on anyone with a status-ailment, then cast Curaga on any critically wounded party members, then cast cure on any party membe on less that 60% health, then cast protect on all characters, and then finally attack the monster with the lowest HP. All of this will be carried out automatically, and with a few second of adjusting, I can change the order in which they are done or remove some of them altogether. If you have an order for a character, outside of this system, they will always perform it first, so you never come into conflict with your characters.
The License board system is nothing special, it's basically the Sphere Grid from FFX but with a lot more freedom of movement, so you can make your characters what you want them to be. Wheras in FFX you characters all had defined roles (Yuna= White Mage, Lulu= Black Mage, Auron= Heavy hitter etc), in FFXII you can basically choose which character fulfills which role.
One thing that I think deserves a lot of praise is the Quickenings, which basically replace limit breaks. Each character can have three Quickenings which are hidden on the License Board. Each time they gain a quickening they get a Mist Charge. Different quickenings use different amounts of these charges (the 1st one a character gets costs one charge, the second costs two, the third costs three). When a character launches a quickening, other characters can follow up with their own quickenings, and you will sometimes get the option you gain mist charges anew, thus continuing the chain. Get a sufficiently long chain and it will result in a concurrence (a finishing attack which does massive damage to all enemies in range.) The better your mist chain (ie, the longer it is and the more high-level quickenings used), the better the concurrence you will get. However, your mist charges are linked to your mana, so the more you use, the less mana you will end up with.
Altogether, Final Fantasy XII is a great game, but sometimes marred by the desire to go for style over substance. The mechanics and graphics are great, but the story suffers as a result. Since Squaresoft merged with Enix to become Square-Enix, this has happened a lot (where do you think X-2 came from?), and it needs to be rectified. None of this stops XII from being a praise-worthy game, but it does have a slight could-do-better feel to it.
Score: 9/10, well worth it.